Hometown: Millbrook, NY
Minor: Poverty and Human Capability Studies
Agency: The Achievement Project (TAP), Chester, Pennsylvania
What did you enjoy most about the internship?
I really enjoyed being ‘where the rubber meets the road.' I was fortunate to work closely with the TAP students and have the opportunity to actively learn not only about urban education but also about non-profit management and leadership. I have taken several economics and poverty studies classes, and this internship experience provided me with tangible, real-world examples of many of the topics discussed in class, and I was exposed to many of the unimaginable realities of urban poverty. I also absolutely loved getting to know the TAP students; they were curious and motivated, could always make me laugh, and there was never a day that I went home without a good story.
What was the greatest challenge?
Working for an agency that serves students, it was easy to identify minor flaws or to think that things could be operating more efficiently. However, being in Chester, I came to understand the extremely multifaceted nature of urban poverty. This summer, one of my greatest challenges was also one of the organization's biggest challenges. Working to help these students be the best they can be, you want to hold them accountable and teach them responsibility. However, with so many different circumstances in each student's life, by pushing them to meet certain standards, or denying them of an experience if they do not meet said standards, you might not be helping them, but just pushing them away from the program instead, which would be counterproductive. There is a very delicate balance to be maintained, and it was difficult to come to terms with the fact that given the realities of many students' lives, there might not always be a simple, straightforward solution to make things more efficient.
What was the greatest lesson you learned through your experience?
The greatest lesson I learned in Chester was that while there might not always be a simple answer, and the work can be heartbreaking and extremely difficult, nothing is impossible. Working closely with the founder and executive director of the organization, I was fortunate to witness how passion and dedication can fuel success and change in a community.
How might the internship affect your career path?
This internship has definitely solidified my passion for education and dedication to service. While I think I may be interested in pursuing teaching, this experience has sparked my interest in public policy, as I was able to witness how intricate the issues of poverty are, and therefore how complex the solutions and policies need to be. Further, this experience has instilled a strong commitment to volunteerism in me, and looking to the future I know that whether it is time, or resources, I will always have something to give.
This summer, I was one of the first four Shepherd Alliance interns to brave Chester, Pa. Chester is a small city of a little over 30,000 people, not too far outside of Philadelphia. Today Chester is mostly known for its poverty and for other social ills that typically accompany economic decline, but life in Chester wasn't always so bleak, and things didn't always revolve around its 9 p.m. curfew. Chester was a prosperous, wealthy manufacturing community with strong industry, but it lost population and capital in poor economic times and because of so called "white flight" to the suburbs. I eagerly set off to find out for myself what Chester was all about, and eight weeks later I left with a profound appreciation for the people I came into contact with while there and everything that they had unknowingly done to challenge me and broaden my perspective.
The young people of Chester, Pa., unfortunately must cope with failing social, economic and educational systems. Given these unfavorable situations, there is a compelling need for programs designed to help Chester's youth challenge what has become the norm in this community. During one of my initial meetings about my internship, I mentioned that I wanted to gain exposure to urban poverty, work with an organization where I could get a better understanding of non-profit management and also be able to work with students. My placement could not have been a better fit. Thanks to the Shepherd Alliance, I was fortunate to intern for and work closely with Nicola Tollett Jefferson, the founder and executive director of The Achievement Project (TAP).
The mission of TAP is to help young people in Chester succeed in high school and to prepare for, apply to, gain acceptance at and attend college or other institutions of higher education. Every student who has completed the TAP program has graduated from high school and been accepted at a college, university or other postsecondary educational institution. TAP provides a number of programs and services to the disadvantaged high school students in Chester, including an afterschool program during the school year and an intensive academic program during the summer. TAP takes cohorts of twenty students at a time. The cohort that I worked with this summer consists of rising high school juniors, and the focus during the summer session was to prepare them for the SAT. While the organization engages a relatively small number of students, it's evident day in and day out that the project's imprint on the lives of those young people is transformative.
My first day with TAP, I followed Ms. Jefferson through the decrepit façade of the church, once one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the state, which houses TAP's office. Most days it was just Ms. Jefferson and her interns, and there was much to be done in preparation for the summer program, so with no time to waste, she put us straight to work. During the first few weeks, my days consisted of curriculum development; organizing and creating a calendar for the summer session; creating and printing forms for the TAP students and parents; compiling information about grants; helping the students with things such as class registration, train schedules, and job applications as needed; and finally, what would become a project in itself, TAP's finances. As a result of the guidance and teaching I received from Ms. Jefferson, I gained a lot of insight into non-profit management, financing and fundraising. Never judgmental or too preoccupied, she patiently answered my many questions, and shared her strategies and philosophies along the way.
The first day of the TAP summer session snuck up on us, and just like the first day of school, I felt a little unprepared and had some nervous butterflies. The students came into the classroom at Widener University one by one. Some were quiet and hesitant, and others were boisterous and intimidating. Conscious of the fact that my race was an anomaly in the city and in the classroom, and unsure of how the students would respond to the summer interns (who weren't much older than some of the students), I was surprised to see how quickly I was accepted as a part of the group. Rather than getting hung up on how different I was from the students, it became easier for me to see how similar we all were and how we had so many common experiences, emotions and interests.
TAP has developed Three Pillars of Success, which motivate and undergird all that it does: Academic Achievement, Social Awareness and Collegiate Identity. The academic lessons during the summer session were focused heavily upon computer literacy and SAT preparation in addition to the one-week science camp at Drexel University. For me, the pillar of social awareness stands out. During my time with TAP, we did several things to promote social awareness, including teaching the students how to read SEPTA schedules and navigate the public transportation system, taking the train, going out to restaurants, going to listen to a speaker at a nearby private school, going to a vegetable garden, going to a South American music and dance concert in Philadelphia, and learning to ride and care for a horse. While I think many people might argue that these students don't need to learn how to ride a horse to get into college or succeed in life, I came to really appreciate that TAP was helping these students to build their ‘soft skills.' The goal is to provide the students with enriching experiences that will advance their ability to understand and navigate the world beyond Chester, and that will help them to effectively and appropriately participate in a variety of social, economic and cultural settings.
Driving with Ms. Jefferson in the big white van to pick up and drop off all of the students I was given a glimpse into the home lives of these students. Each day, I was so impressed with how they seemingly left their troubles at the door and marched into TAP with smiling faces and a wholehearted desire to learn. No matter how chaotic a day with TAP tended to be, the never-ending to-do list, the students' very apparent need for these academic and social awareness lessons, and their infectious curiosity and positivity always kept me wanting more.
Jumping to my final day with TAP, the nervous butterflies that had vanished with the connections made and laughs shared with the students were now back in full force. I was supposed to give an "intern lesson" to the students about a topic of my choice. Ms. Jefferson told me that in the past interns had done lessons on opera or studying abroad or a language they were proficient in. After much discussion about what I should share with the students, I decided to give them a lesson on what I study at school--economics and poverty. Although I had given informal lessons throughout the summer on grammar, vocabulary and math problems, I had also seen how these students behaved in the classroom, especially if they thought something was ‘a real snooze.' I was nervous that the lesson might be misconstrued and rejected, but the jitters faded as the lesson precipitated eager and intelligent questions. I was beaming. The energy in the room was contagious, and intrigued to hear that people actually study poverty, the students thoughtfully participated in a wonderful discussion about "what is poverty?," the stereotypes that exist, how the effects build upon each other to make the issue more complex and what could possibly be done to break the generational cycle. The lesson and discussion that followed was one of my favorite memories. It was unbelievably rewarding, and in that moment it was so clear that while I was there to help teach, these students had taught me far more than I could have ever imagined.
Sure, I say that I "braved" Chester, but in all honesty, it wasn't that bad; in fact, it was great. There was a 9 p.m. curfew, and I became a little too comfortable falling asleep to the sound of sirens and passing roadside memorials to victims of violence, but if I hadn't taken the risk and given Chester the chance it deserves, I would have denied myself of the most incredible experiences of my life. In addition to introducing me to the essentials of organizing a non-profit and the significant amount of work it takes to be successful, working for TAP has given me so many intangible rewards. If I learned one thing this summer, it is that there is always more than meets the eye. Unfortunately, Chester's reputation precedes it, and while a drive around some neighborhoods in Chester may make the city seem beyond repair, and the news may depict a city that is stuck in a hopeless cycle of violence and poverty, my experiences this summer have exposed me to passionate leaders and promising students who prove that the people are so much greater than the existing stereotypes. Every day I was blown away by the fact that despite their failing school system and overwhelmingly, undeniably destitute environment, these students still have goals and ambitions and they still laugh, all the time. The work can be as challenging and heartbreaking as the issue of poverty itself, and a solution isn't always self-evident, but the extraordinary passion, optimism and leadership of people like Ms. Jefferson and the ceaseless curiosity of the students' lead me to believe that absolutely nothing is impossible and that Chester's reputation will improve.